This could have been a disaster. A film reviewer whose movie tastes revolve around 90s action movies and dodgy horror flicks watching a period film about a middle-aged woman babysitting a young dancer in 1920s New York shouldn’t have worked. For all these reasons and more, I wasn’t initially thrilled after hearing the premise of The Chaperone, which purports to tell a fictionalized account of the real-life Louise Brooks, the iconic flapper whose dancing and fashion sensibilities became iconic throughout the roaring 20s. Just how much of this story is actually true remains a mystery, but I was entertained.
The Chaperone begins at a social event in Wichita, Kansas with Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) in attendance with her husband Alan Carlisle (Campbell Scott). After some social mingling with others in her community, Norma overhears Myra Brooks (Victoria Hill) talking about needing a chaperone for her daughter Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson). Louise has been accepted to attend a very prestigious dancing school in New York however Myra is unable to go with her beautiful and talented daughter as she has another engagement to attend. With problems in her marriage and an ulterior motive for going to New York, Norma quickly volunteers to be the chaperone.
After boarding the train to leave Kansas, Norma realizes she’s got her work cut out for her. Myra is headstrong, rebellious and keen to experience what the world has to offer, which is directly at odds with Norma’s conservative, posh and goody-two-shoes personality. It’s not long before Norma is having to reign in Myra’s activities again and again, a task which proves to be quite a frustrating experience for the chaperone who thought she was going to be looking after a well behaved teenage girl. But as time passes in the big world of New York city, Norma and Myra discover there’s much they can both learn from each other as they pursue their own goals.
Elizabeth McGovern delivers a solid performance as a woman trapped in a marriage that is a farce but doing what society expects of her. She’s a mother, a wife and a role model trying to fill a void in her life while doing her best to fulfill her duties as a responsible chaperone to a wildly rebellious teenager. She is hilariously naive at what to expect from Louise Brooks who doesn’t share her conservative view of the world.
Haley Lu Richardson is also great as the young, rebellious Louise Brooks who will eventually grow up to be an iconic film star, dancer and sex symbol of the 20s and 30s. She’s cheeky, adventurous, talented and eager to escape from the drudgery of her small midwestern hometown. But while her exterior presents a confident young woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants, there’s still something fragile and secret underneath that will eventually be uncovered.
Director Michael Engler (known mostly for his television work) has done a wonderful job recreating the 1920s era of both Kansas and New York, carefully lensing Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of Laura Moriarty’s best-seller for the screen. Fellowes, as it happens, is also the creator and writer of Downton Abbey, so there’s plenty of prestige to go around here. Together, they tell an amusing story of two people at odds with one another in both comedic and dramatic fashion that I found engaging and enjoyable. Ironically, I also found this to be my only real criticism with the film.
I felt there was more that could have been explored given the severity of some of the situations the characters find themselves in yet a number of moments or plot points were glossed over or never shown. There is obvious sexual chemistry between Louise and her dance instructor, yet this is never explored in any detail. This seemed strange as the dance instructor’s wife, Ruth Dennis (Miranda Otto), is clearly unhappy with her husband’s wandering eye but nothing comes of this other than a few sharp looks and comments.
The relationship that develops between Norma and Joseph (Géza Röhrig), the orphanage’s handyman, is also very quick and seemed rather unbelievable given the time frame of their courtship. The complicated and unconventional living situation that results between them was something I felt would have made an interesting part of the story to tell, though this tantalizing thread is never expanded on. As disappointing as this was I must comment on Röhrig’s acting style, which made him come across a bit like The Room’s Tommy Wiseau.
Despite glossing over of important plot points, I enjoyed The Chaperone. It wasn’t brilliant, but was definitely an entertaining period-appropriate drama that made me laugh in parts and curious to see how things would pan out for these quirky characters. The overall performances were strong, and I enjoyed seeing the wardrobe worn by people of the day and experiencing the social etiquettes of the time. Much has been made of this film’s connection to Downton Abbey, but it deserves to be viewed on its own terms. With its strong themes of self-discovery and moving on from the past, The Chaperone is worth watching for those looking for something with substance – and great costumes.